Authors: Trevor Noah
Eden Park was a colored neighborhood adjacent to several black townships on the East Rand. Half-colored and half-black, she figured, like us. We’d be camouflaged there. It didn’t work out that way; we never fit in at all. But that was her thinking when we made the move. Plus it was a chance to buy a home—our own home. Eden Park was one of those “suburbs” that are actually out on the edge of civilization, the kind of place where property developers have said, “Hey, poor people. You can live the good life, too. Here’s a house. In the middle of nowhere. But look, you have a yard!” For some reason the streets in Eden Park were named after cars: Jaguar Street. Ferrari Street. Honda Street. I don’t know if that was a coincidence or not, but it’s funny because colored people in South Africa are known for loving fancy cars. It was like living in a white neighborhood with all the streets named after varietals of fine wine.
I remember moving out there in flashbacks, snippets, driving to a place I’d never seen, seeing people I’d never seen. It was flat, not many trees, the same dusty red-clay dirt and grass as Soweto but with proper houses and paved roads and a sense of suburbia to it. Ours was a tiny house at the bend in the road right off Toyota Street. It was modest and cramped inside, but walking in I thought,
We are really living
. It was crazy to have my own room. I didn’t like it. My whole life I’d slept in a room with my mom or on the floor with my cousins. I was used to having other human beings right next to me, so I slept in my mom’s bed most nights.
There was no stepfather in the picture yet, no baby brother crying in the night. It was me and her, alone. There was this sense of the two of us embarking on a grand adventure. She’d say things to me like, “It’s you and me against the world.” I understood even from an early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team.
It was when we moved to Eden Park that we finally got a car, the beat-up, tangerine Volkswagen my mother bought secondhand for next to nothing. One out of five times it wouldn’t start. There was no AC. Anytime I made the mistake of turning on the fan the vent would fart bits of leaves and dust all over me. Whenever it broke down we’d catch minibuses, or sometimes we’d hitchhike. She’d make me hide in the bushes because she knew men would stop for a woman but not a woman with a child. She’d stand by the road, the driver would pull over, she’d open the door and then whistle, and I’d come running up to the car. I would watch their faces drop as they realized they weren’t picking up an attractive single woman but an attractive single woman with a fat little kid.
When the car did work, we had the windows down, sputtering along and baking in the heat. For my entire life the dial on that car’s radio stayed on one station. It was called Radio Pulpit, and as the name suggests it was nothing but preaching and praise. I wasn’t allowed to touch that dial. Anytime the radio wasn’t getting reception, my mom would pop in a cassette of Jimmy Swaggart sermons. (When we finally found out about the scandal? Oh, man. That was rough.)
But as shitty as our car was, it was a
. It was freedom. We weren’t black people stuck in the townships, waiting for public transport. We were black people who were out in the world. We were black people who could wake up and say, “Where do we choose to go today?” On the commute to work and school, there was a long stretch of the road into town that was completely deserted. That’s where Mom would let me drive. On the highway. I was six. She’d put me on her lap and let me steer and work the indicators while she worked the pedals and the stick shift. After a few months of that, she taught me how to work the stick. She was still working the clutch, but I’d climb onto her lap and take the stick, and she’d call out the gears as we drove. There was this one part of the road that ran deep into a valley and then back up the other side. We’d get up a head of speed, and we’d stick it into neutral and let go of the brake and the clutch, and,
we’d race down the hill and then,
we’d shoot up the other side. We were flying.
If we weren’t at school or work or church, we were out exploring. My mom’s attitude was “I chose you, kid. I brought you into this world, and I’m going to give you everything I never had.” She poured herself into me. She would find places for us to go where we didn’t have to spend money. We must have gone to every park in Johannesburg. My mom would sit under a tree and read the Bible, and I’d run and play and play and play. On Sunday afternoons after church, we’d go for drives out in the country. My mom would find places with beautiful views for us to sit and have a picnic. There was none of the fanfare of a picnic basket or plates or anything like that, only baloney and brown bread and margarine sandwiches wrapped up in butcher paper. To this day, baloney and brown bread and margarine will instantly take me back. You can come with all the Michelin stars in the world, just give me baloney and brown bread and margarine and I’m in heaven.
Food, or the access to food, was always the measure of how good or bad things were going in our lives. My mom would always say, “My job is to feed your body, feed your spirit, and feed your mind.” That’s exactly what she did, and the way she found money for food and books was to spend absolutely nothing on anything else. Her frugality was the stuff of legend. Our car was a tin can on wheels, and we lived in the middle of nowhere. We had threadbare furniture, busted old sofas with holes worn through the fabric. Our TV was a tiny black-and-white with a bunny aerial on top. We changed the channels using a pair of pliers because the buttons didn’t work. Most of the time you had to squint to see what was going on.
We always wore secondhand clothes, from Goodwill stores or that were giveaways from white people at church. All the other kids at school got brands, Nike and Adidas. I never got brands. One time I asked my mom for Adidas sneakers. She came home with some knockoff brand, Abidas.
“Mom, these are fake,” I said.
“I don’t see the difference.”
“Look at the logo. There are four stripes instead of three.”
“Lucky you,” she said. “You got one extra.”
We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily
food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archaeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head. Sometimes the only meat we had was a packaged meat you could buy at the butcher called “sawdust.” It was literally the dust of the meat, the bits that fell off the cuts being packaged for the shop, the bits of fat and whatever’s left. They’d sweep it up and put it into bags. It was meant for dogs, but my mom bought it for us. There were many months where that was all we ate.
The butcher sold bones, too. We called them “soup bones,” but they were actually labeled “dog bones” in the store; people would cook them for their dogs as a treat. Whenever times were really tough we’d fall back on dog bones. My mom would boil them for soup. We’d suck the marrow out of them. Sucking marrow out of bones is a skill poor people learn early. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a fancy restaurant as a grown man and someone told me, “You have to try the bone marrow. It’s such a delicacy. It’s
.” They ordered it, the waiter brought it out, and I was like, “Dog bones, motherfucker!” I was not impressed.
As modestly as we lived at home, I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience. We were always out doing something, going somewhere. My mom used to take me on drives through fancy white neighborhoods. We’d go look at people’s houses, look at their mansions. We’d look at their walls, mostly, because that’s all we could see from the road. We’d look at a wall that ran from one end of the block to the other and go, “Wow. That’s only
house. All of that is for
family.” Sometimes we’d pull over and go up to the wall, and she’d put me up on her shoulders like I was a little periscope. I would look into the yards and describe everything I was seeing. “It’s a big white house! They have two dogs! There’s a lemon tree! They have a swimming pool! And a tennis court!”
My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She’d take me to the ice rink to go skating. Johannesburg used to have this epic drive-in movie theater, Top Star Drive-In, on top of a massive mine dump outside the city. She’d take me to movies there; we’d get snacks, hang the speaker on our car window. Top Star had a 360-degree view of the city, the suburbs, Soweto. Up there I could see for miles in every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world.
My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will.
Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that my mother started her little project, me, at a time when she could not have known that apartheid would end. There was no reason to think it would end; it had seen generations come and go. I was nearly six when Mandela was released, ten before democracy finally came, yet she was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist. A hard life in the township or a trip to the colored orphanage were the far more likely options on the table. But we never lived that way. We only moved forward and we always moved fast, and by the time the law and everyone else came around we were already miles down the road, flying across the freeway in a bright-orange, piece-of-shit Volkswagen with the windows down and Jimmy Swaggart praising Jesus at the top of his lungs.
People thought my mom was crazy. Ice rinks and drive-ins and suburbs, these things were
—the things of white people. So many black people had internalized the logic of apartheid and made it their own. Why teach a black child white things? Neighbors and relatives used to pester my mom. “Why do all this? Why show him the world when he’s never going to leave the ghetto?”
“Because,” she would say, “even if he never leaves the ghetto, he will know that the ghetto is not the world. If that is all I accomplish, I’ve done enough.”
partheid, for all its power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But, unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ’em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same time, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job was to make sure that people of the wrong color weren’t doing the wrong thing. If he saw an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench, what would he say?
“Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!”
“Excuse me. I’m Japanese.”
“Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.”